The Threat of Virtue: Why Independence and Integrity Threaten the State

By O'Neill, Ben | Journal of Private Enterprise, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

The Threat of Virtue: Why Independence and Integrity Threaten the State


O'Neill, Ben, Journal of Private Enterprise


Abstract

There is a widespread desire for governments to manage all manner of social problems, a desire that is propagated by governments primarily through the co-option of intellectuals through the trafficking of awards, titles, and government positions in areas pertaining to its desired functions. The moral virtues of independence and integrity threaten this process and therefore threaten the government's power in society. Civil institutions that advocate freedom from government power need to operate from an independent property base and work to strengthen the virtues of independence and integrity by putting forward a radical and consistent vision of a free society. In doing so, they must maintain their own integrity and refuse to compromise on the ultimate goal of a totally free society.

JEL Codes: H80, Y80

Keywords: Government experts; Independence; Integrity

I. Introduction

"Let me add, that only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters."

-Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)

Benjamin Franklin penned this insightful observation in a letter written more than two hundred and twenty years ago (letter of 17 April 1787 to the Abbés Chalut and Arnaut; see Franklin, Franklin and Duane, 1834, p. 640) at a time when natural law was well understood and writings on the link between moral virtue and political freedom were well known to any statesman worthy of the name (see remarks in Oberg and Stout, 1993, p. 77). Franklin viewed moral virtue as inextricably linked to political freedom, whether for an individual or a whole society. Decades earlier, he had written "No longer virtuous no longer free, is a Maxim as true with regard to a private Person as a Common-wealth" (Franklin and Trees, 2004, p.71).

Franklin is partly right - only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. But although he expresses his sentiments in support of freedom, Franklin misstates the case when he says that vicious nations have a "need" of masters. When one observes the historical record of semi-free nations that have, over time, descended into greater and greater levels of political control and repression, it is not need that drives this process but misplaced desire. As nations become corrupt and vicious, their people have a greater desire for masters who will exercise control over the lives of their neighbors.

While such a small flaw is forgivable in the informal remarks of a letter, the subsequent eminence of Franklin's statement calls for a high degree of pedantry. Like an otherwise magnificent work of art with a small blemish, Franklin's quotation is an embodiment of great insight, marred by a small flaw that renders the message askew. Indeed, the statement that vicious nations are in need of masters is an unwitting acceptance of a quintessentially statist notion: that political power is necessary to overcome vice and misery, or at least to hold them in check in times of crisis.

One can hear this same argument playing out in parliaments around the world, from politicians who assure us of their reluctance to intervene in our lives, but cite crisis after crisis (almost always caused by them) as necessitating expansions of their power.1

Haven't you heard? There are no politicians who support bigger government. All are committed to freedom, we are told, but are grudgingly forced to intervene in our lives only to maintain a check on vicious and corrupt actions, and crises that threaten to tear apart the fabric of society at any moment (for example, see Obama, 2009).

If our political masters prohibit recreational drugs, it is only because consumption of these drugs is rampant and detrimental and an "epidemic" of the highest priority. If they regulate or nationalize financial institutions and accelerate toward socialism, it is only to "save capitalism" (the same capitalism they have been busy denouncing and destroying) and prevent economic collapse resulting from unbridled "speculation" and "greed" (for example, see the speeches of former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in Lane, 2008, and Fenner, 2009).

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